"MEANDER: East to West along a Turkish River" by Jeremy Seal
Published by Chatto and Windus, Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-70118-347-9
Review published under the title "One Man in a Boat" in TLS, March 15 2013, Issue #5737.
Meander is both the tale of a quixotic journey down a river and a wonderfully affectionate, funny, intimate and knowledgeable portrait of Turkey.
At its simplest level it is a burlesque adventure, where a well-meaning amateur English adventurer blunders his way through a totally impractical project: in this case to paddle a dirigible canoe from the headwaters of the River Meander through the fecund farmland of western Anatolia to the Aegean sea. I am fairly certain that Jeremy Seal, with 30 years of travelling in Turkey and a number of books behind him, must have known that the Meander has not been navigable for many years – but if so, on this matter he never lets his guard down. For his multiple and continuous failures to paddle down the river provide us with a series of accidental encounters with local fishermen, fallen willow trees, irrigation ditches, flea-pit hotels, vast dams, guard-dogs and generous hosts. This journey is enchantingly evoked but it also has the effect of allowing Seal to learn things on the ground, instead of setting himself up as the latest in a long line of scholarly writers who have quarried the ruin-fields of Turkey, assisted by the dry textual authority of the classics. Instead of joining the august Pococke, Fellows, Chandler, Arundell, Patrick Kinross, George Bean and Freya Stark, Jeremy Seal repeatedly sabotages his authorial dignity by tipping himself over in the shallows and floundering through alluvial mud and riverbank rubbish. The reader is irresistibly immersed into pools of that rich comic tradition of an Englishman on a river, of Ratty and Mole in Wind in the Willows , or Jerome K Jerome barely afloat in Three Men in a Boat. His misadventures also allow the narrator to be nursed and cared-for by a succession of hospitable Turkish families, like the wonderful polymath of a local lawyer called Mehmet TrueHero who later confesses that “we saw you get wet at the first bend. But we thought it was best to let you get on with it…”
Skillfully woven into this personal narrative is a chronological journey through the history of Turkey, taking us from the indigenous ancient kingdoms of Anatolia - the Hittite, Phrygian and Lydian layers - before hitting the Imperial conquest states (Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Seljuk) with their cast of famous warrior commanders: Xerxes, Xenophon, Cyrus and Alexander. This narrative is knitted together by a convincingly-argued theme that the Aegean shoreline was never the real frontier between Europe and Asia, which has always stood much further east, at the frontiers of the Anatolian steppe. This means that all historical states in this region have been forged from a creative but also occasionally destructive duality, binding the horseman-shepherd of the steppe with the farmers of the valleys and the traders of the shore. And despite the infamous fates of the celebrated cities of the shore, be they Troy, Miletus or Smyrna, it is the internal eastern frontier of Anatolia that has ultimately proved decisive. Symbolically it was here that Apollo, the golden god of the civilized arts, ordered the shepherd musician, Marsyas, to be flayed alive - once he had been tricked him out of his near victory. And it is on this borderland that the Greek attempt to annex western Anatolia after the First World War was halted at Sakarya (1921) and Dumlupinar (1922). Just as the military capability of the Byzantine Empire had been destroyed in two other Anatolian fields, at Manzikert (in 1071) and Myriocephalon (in 1176).
During the slow process of Seal’s journey from mountain to sea, we also get to witness at village level how the Turkish Republic, through its own hard-fought efforts, has achieved an industrious revolution over the last three generations. IN doing so they have transformed that Ottoman Arcadia, so beloved by the 19th-century traveller, into a landscape shaped by engineers and entrepreneurs, constructing dams for irrigation and hydro-electric schemes, and pouring pollutants into the river from their new factories, while the charming old market towns have been gradually replaced by concrete apartment blocks and roadside shopping malls. Similarly the picturesque gatherers of the opium crop (destined for the 19th-century chemists and doctors of London), the hunters of liquorice roots and the black tents of the nomads have been gradually displaced by tractors, irrigated orchards and vast cotton-fields.
While developing these multiple themes, Seal deft examines the post-war politics of Turkey, always engaged in its perennial balancing act between East and West, coast and steppe, city and country, Asian and European identities.
In this context, Seal suggests that the current spat between secularist Republicans and the democratically elected Islamist ruling party, now called the AK, should not surprise anyone. For a dynastic Empire of Islamic faith upheld by a professional army for 500 years cannot be transformed overnight into a secular democratic republic – even if this was wished upon them by the most beloved, charismatic and victorious of Turkish hero-generals. Neither can a brand new national identity be imposed over the dozen indigenous ethnic identities and languages and cultures of Anatolia without some creaks and groans and residual resistance. Nor can the core Islamic identity of the tens of thousands of Anatolian villages be resisted for ever, especially when migrant villagers now numerically dominate the cities and over the last three generations have advanced themselves to become businessmen, doctors and engineers. On the other side of the political scale, there is an equally passionate secular liberalism based on the great cities of the coast such as Istanbul and Izmir. There might or might not, also be a shadowy ‘deep state’ known as Ergenekon, that is believed to be formed from a secret league of gangsters, generals, police-chiefs, rebel-chieftains and intelligence agencies. As was seemingly exposed when a accidental car-crash in 1996 revealed a set of such individuals to be all sharing seats in a cash and gun-filled drug-smugglers car. A similar cabal is believed to be behind the military coup of 1960 and the subsequent hanging of the liberal prime-minister Adnan Menderes by a kangaroo military court – like some modern version of the slaying of Marsyas
Despite a thunderous epilogue, where the returning power of the river Meander in spate seems to mime the power of some future revolution (and promises to drown anyone foolish enough to try to canoe down it), Jeremy Seal’s tone is always affectionate and confident of the essential stability of Turkey. For as Seal happily confesses towards the end of his journey, not one of his Turkish hosts ever so much as ‘threatened me or barred my progress – they had only wished that I might drink tea with them or take up their offer of a lift.”
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by Barnaby Rogerson